Joseph E Bird

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creative nonfiction

56 Miles in Andes, NY

I’d like to share a story one of my New York running friends wrote. Sadly, it’s all too true, but Ari tells it with strength and grace and a perspective that is shaped by those long, lonely miles on the road.

The photo above is mine from the West Virginia highlands, which is not that different from upstate New York. Click on the link below and you’ll see what I mean.

The kitchen.

tida in kitchen

I love this photo for many reasons, but the thing that intrigues me the most is the honesty.

The photo itself is a basement shoebox relic.  It’s old.  It’s bent and cracked. No Photoshop effects, here. Just a snapshot.

The subjects are familiar faces, but the photo was taken probably close to sixty years ago, before I really knew them. Maybe before I was born. Even in the older women there is youth I never saw in later years. From left to right, my Aunt Shirley; my grandmother Bettie Pearl, who I knew as Mom; my great-grandmother Tida, who we called Tidy; and my mother, Gloria, who looks to be with child.

The place, I believe, is my great-grandmother’s kitchen. If I had to guess, I would say it was breakfast.  There’s the coffee pot and toaster.  But I can’t imagine them gathering so early just for breakfast. Maybe lunch, which they called dinner.  Dinner would have included fried potatoes and tomatoes from the garden. Supper was the evening meal.  There would have been men in the picture by then.

There’s tension evident in the photograph.  Not a one could manage a smile, which is very unusual for my mother and Aunt Shirley, especially in front of a camera.  There’s a weariness, too.  Maybe they had been working.  Maybe canning tomatoes or beans.

They were all different.

My mother was the free spirit, enjoying every moment.

My aunt was sophistication personified, full of grace and elegance.

My grandmother, hardworking and kind, ready to share with everyone.

My great-grandmother, the strong, independent woman living by herself.

Maybe that was the source of the tension. Around the table love and respect, yet each one not quite understanding the other.  One dreams of this, another of that. And dreams, what are they for, anyway? another may think.  And Tidy, who has already seen enough heartbreak for all of them, keeps it to herself.

I’ll never know. They’re all gone now.  Not that any of them would give me a straight answer anyway.

I think that’ s the wonder of old photographs.  They tell a story, but never the entire story. A moment frozen in time that forces us to think about those who have gone on, to see if we can fill in the blanks. It forces us to remember them as they were, beyond the smiles and laughter. It forces us to remember who they really were.

I don’t have a passport.

That pretty well sums up what kind of traveler I am.

Don’t misunderstand. I wish I had a passport. I would have liked to have traveled around the world. See the sights. Meet people. Learn about their culture. But that’s not my reality, for reasons that aren’t important for this discussion.

I’m just not a world traveler. But I have a lot of friends who are.

I have a friend in Singapore who corresponds with me on a regular basis. Another musician friend in the UK who travels the countryside with his wife and dog and guitar. A friend down under shares her amazing photos of the places she visits. Amos, a writer, goes to Lisbon for inspiration. Want real life in Sydney or New Zealand?  Check this out.  And my good friend Lily treks all over Canada with her husband. Oh, Canada. I could go on.

People will ask if I have any travel plans for the summer. My running joke is that we plan to take a trip to Marmet, a wide spot on the road about 20 miles away.  While Marmet is a fine community, it’s not on anybody’s list of places to vacation.

In my travel fantasies, there are places I would have liked to live. Not just visit for a day, or even a week, but actually live there. Get a job. An apartment. Shop for food. Cook meals. Get to know people. Get to know their culture. Live in the country. Again, I know people who do this. But for me, it’s just a fantasy.

So my travels are typically much closer to home. And I’ve discovered there is much to learn about the different people and cultures within my own country, and within my own state. Not to mention some truly spectacular places.

This week, we’ll travel to some of these places. It won’t be glamorous, but it will be fulfilling.  More tomorrow.

ninety-nine miles


Not quite dawn.
Early morning drive
to get to where i’m going.
Which is where?
Doesn’t matter.
Just another destination

The gray skies start to lighten.
No dramatic sunrise.
Just light, and a little more.
Ninety nine miles down the road.
Around the bend.
Down the valley.
Up the hill.

Then the golden streaks
shining on the brilliant greens.
Bright highlights and deep shadows
and fog nestled
in the forest.
For a moment
maybe two.
A meeting.
Just business.
Keep the project moving.
What city?
Doesn’t matter.
Just another job.

They go their way.
I go mine.
Looking for lunch.
Walking the streets.
A pawn shop.
Liquor store.
Check cashing.

The next block is different.
A coffee shop.
A Mediterranean restaurant.
Great food and friendly server.
It doesn’t get any better.
For a moment.
Maybe two.
Day is dimming.
The tires are humming.
Got to get back home.
Doesn’t matter.
Home is home.

The radio is droning.
Two hours of talk
numbs the mind.
Even the music
that always brings relief
has been playing
much too long.

Then Scott sings.
I’m as nowhere as I can be.
The most beautiful music.
And all is well.
For a moment.
Maybe two.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Not so tough guy.

to The Gang

That’s me. Back row in the middle. Me and the boys. The gang.
Real tough guys, we was, although you might think differently after you hear this story. One more trip in the way-back machine.  This time, it’s my freshman year in college. Let’s set the scene.

I had just turned 18 and I’m off to school to set the course for the rest of my life.  At least that’s the theory. To illustrate how far off base that concept can be, the major I chose was Agronomy, the study soil and crop science, with the idea that I was going to be a farmer. About halfway through my freshman year it dawned on me that I didn’t come from a farming family, had no prospects of ever owning a farm, and I was afraid of cows.

I didn’t quite have my act together at that point.

Fortunately, the administrators of higher education understand that 18 year-olds can’t be left completely on their own. It would be better to let them get acclimated to this new semi-adult world by living in a dorm under the supervision of 20 year-old Resident Advisor.

The dorm.  Fifty guys on one floor, sharing one common area with one television, and two giant shower and toilet rooms. That took some getting used to. We were supposed to be students, but it was more like one, long endless party. It’s not as fun as it sounds, especially if you not a big partier. I wasn’t. I loosened up a little in my later years in school, but as a freshman, I was pretty much intimidated by everything.  Which probably explains my Lord of the Flies moment.  Except that it was much more than a moment.

I kept to myself as much as I could, but I had a tormentor.  He wasn’t the biggest guy on the floor. He wasn’t the meanest.  He wasn’t the funniest.  He was just a guy with a permanent smirk. I never would have even noticed him if he hadn’t started calling me names.

Now some guys I know would have taken a stand right there. Smacked him down and put an end to the insults. But besides a few harmless tussles with friends when I was growing up, I’ve never really been a fighting guy.  So sticks and stones.  I did my best to ignore him.

Which, of course, meant that he never let up.  Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.  I acted like it didn’t bother me, but it bothered me a lot.

Then one weekend, a friend came up to see me.  This friend, being as immature as I was, brought with him a rubber monster mask. Why?  Who knows. We went out with our other friends, one of us wearing the mask, just to see if anybody noticed. As college hijinks goes, it was pretty lame.

Later that evening we were back at the dorm. I was wearing the mask and roaming the halls, just for kicks. He sees me, and even with the mask on, he knows its me.

“Hey, that’s a big improvement on your looks,” he said.  Then the names.

At this point, I need to explain a guy thing. When guys get together, they will sometimes play fight. Kind of shadow box, throwing fake punches that are not intended to land. It’s all just posturing and it’s always done in fun.

So I’m wearing the mask and he’s calling me names.

I start to shadow box.  Slow motion punches in the air.  He does the same.  Nothing’s going to come of this.

But he keeps calling me names. Mean names. Hurtful names. Really bad names.

And that’s it.

I flick a jab and hit him in the face. Then another one. He’s stunned. I hit him again before he hits back. He lands a punch to the side of my head. Then he clinches so I can’t hit him again.  We wrestle around a little, and then both of us decide we don’t want it to go any further. We separate, breathing hard. His lip is bleeding.

He is still stunned. He’s angry. Partly because I hit him, but I think more because I refused to play his game by his rules. He was a bully and I’d had enough.

It’s an embarrassing story, though. I shouldn’t have let it get to the point that I lost my cool and started throwing punches. I should have found a better way to defuse the situation earlier.

I still encounter bullies. We all do. The person who is so insecure that they think they build themselves up by tearing other people down. Or are too scared to let someone else do something their own way. We just need to figure out how to deal with them in a civilized way.

After my freshman year, things settled down. I found a bit more confidence and some really good friends.  The tough guys in the photo?  Yeah, we’re all posers, as if you couldn’t tell.

I think about my tormentor from time to time. Wonder if he ever felt bad for being a bully. Wonder if he ever changed. People change. I’ve changed. I hope he has, too.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

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